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The Sad Truth About Developing Executives (recode.net)
142 points by tandavas 950 days ago | hide | past | web | 72 comments | favorite



"You should be extremely clear up front that you expect your executives to be world-class in their functions. If they are not, they will not keep their jobs. Furthermore, you will not be able to make them world-class, because you are not world-class in their areas."

I see two big problems with this statement:

1. It falls into the "everyone must be extraordinarily excellent" trap. The average employee is... average. Odds are your hiring practices are average too. It is better to focus on getting people's best than it is to focus on having the best people, because very few companies actually do have the best people. If you think your company is different, you had better have a compelling reason.

2. Even for good employees, it takes time for them to adapt to your company and perform at their best. Obviously you need to let some people go, but if you hold a noose over their heads from day one they're just going to worry about looking good for long enough to collect their options/bonuses/etc.. Looking good in the short-term and doing good in the long-term are often incompatible goals.


1. Nah, I think he's right. You're right in that most start-ups will never run into the issues that he's talking about, because most will fail, but if you need to take sales national or international then your VP of Sales better be either a domain leader or know a helluvalot more than you. Either way, you have to trust executives at a level that you never have to for average employees.

2. I didn't see him say anywhere that performance has to be measured short-term. Having a noose over your head based on long term results is very possible. Of course you evaluate your executives on their last major completed project/action, it may have taken 6-18 months (or longer) for it to come to fruition, but that doesn't mean a noose isn't over their heads.


Your VP of Sales will know a helluva lot more than you do if they're remotely competent at their job though, which is not by any stretch of the imagination equivalent to being "world class". Any decent VP of Sales will also be highly adept at shifting blame if you make it clear the knife is hanging over their head from the start...

Even in sales, which has an unusually straightforward success metric, beyond a certain threshold of above-average competency the leadership is more about how well their approach gels with the most suitable approach for your service, and how flexible they are in their approaches than whether they're some mythical 10x unicorn. Someone who is "world class" at scaling inside sales teams is not going to be "world class" at figuring out how to get your small team of domain experts to network their way to niche domination... if anything applying lessons learned from their experience might make things worse. And I'm not sure what even makes a Head of HR "world class", but I'd certainly prefer a shared philosophy than a stellar set of resume accomplishments.

Anyone involved in a sufficiently large organization who thinks all their senior executives are "world class" or necessary to eliminate is clearly the weak link on the team, especially when it comes to judging others' abilities.


My sense is that the OP's attitude is counterproductive at lower levels. It's much cheaper and more effective to retain your best and develop them, rather than hiring in the open market.

Once you get to the top, it's much more difficult. Indeed a non-Finance CEO can't teach much about Finance to the CFO. And they need stars for direct reports because too much is at stake to rely on mediocre people to improve by self-learning.

Where the argument breaks down is culture comes from the top. If the CEO doesn't take coaching seriously, their direct reports won't either. The CEO has to find a way to show that personal growth is a top priority, even if it isn't by teaching outside of their own domain.


The CEO isn't the top of the org, the board is. Of course the CEO shouldn't/isn't the best at everything. If a C-level is lacking or needs help, you get them the help. The mentality that you are amazing or gone is utter bullshit, at the same time it isn't an excuse for chronically shoddy work. Everyone thinks they can be, or should be, The Yankees.


What makes The Yankees special is that there are millions of baseball players, and thousands of teams around the world, and they all do exactly the same thing, so there is an objective measure that says the Yankees are the best.

However when it comes to companies and executive functions there are as many job descriptions as there are companies. We can quibble all day about the definition of world-class, but I think the article draws the right distinction between executives and employees. The rank and file will converge to average for any large company, but executives will always be a handful and receive outsized compensation, so it is reasonable to demand more from them than you could expect from everyone else.


So, after extracting a large percentage of your liquidity, a CEO should be able to extract talent, intelligence and valuable information as well. Then they shouldn't have to worry about being productive with all those resources because it might make him nervous :(


When you're hired as an executive, the state of affairs is either glorious or shit.

If its glorious, its because the previous executive left. You in this case have the excellent opportunity of not screwing it up. Good luck, but it'll be while before anyone figures out that you're an imposter. Typically, your team will know well ahead of the CEO. By the time the CEO knows, its too late to mentor you. The damage is done.

If the state of affairs is terrible when you join, as a semi reasonable executive, you should be able to identify the most basic things that are effed up, and show improvement within 90 days. If you're unable to improve things right away, when they are screwed up -- sorry, you don't have what it takes. No amount of mentorship will address this.


Wisest words I ever got early in my career from a boss who spent a couple of decades in senior management at a variety of big and small tech companies was if you're hired as an executive you immediately do three things. 1) Get in early, leave late, and read everything about the group you're running. 2) Get to know your people and understand the problems you're dealing with. 3) Change nothing immediately. Waltzing in and changing things willy nilly is a recipe for disaster. I'd counter and say within 90 days you should have a handle on the group you're running, what's going really well, what's going poorly, and identify plan(s) to address major areas that need addressing. It shows you actually understand and aren't simply kicking the apple cart for the sake of making an impression.


Fair point. When I say 90 days, I think if things are bad, it's typically easy to spot where the degenerate behaviors are starting, and correcting them. In 90 days, the leading indicators need to start looking good. It takes time for that to flow through the system.


The other piece of that of course is to communicate clearly to the rest of the executive that this is your approach in case some of them have expectations of you coming in making radical changes from day one.


This has the benefit of also being able to develop some traction with your team before you make huge changes. Even if from day one you have a very clear (and right) idea of what needs to be fixed, it might take much longer to have the trust of your team so that your plan is executed well.


Indeed. "The First 90 Days"[0] is a great book that provides a framework and techniques for being strategic when starting a new job.

0: http://www.amazon.com/The-First-90-Days-Strategies/dp/159139...

edit -- links, how do they work


> show improvement within 90 days

any (senior) executive who changes things in the first 90 days has got it completely wrong. And if who hired them expect sweeping changes in 90 days then they got it even worse.

Anything that a new hire can do in their first 90 days can be done, and better, by whoever that new executive will report to.

E.g.: if you hire me to fire the people you want fired then there is no reason to wait for me and you should do it yourself. The moment you hire me to get help you have to give me the time to decide for myself who to fire and who not to and it will take more than a few weeks to make sensible decisions.

And yes, that's the exact conversion I had when I found myself in that situation and it's not valid just for SMEs, see 'Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?' for basically the same idea in a place as big as IBM (when he talks about everyone expecting him to come up with a brilliant strategy fast)


I've been a VPE coming in from the outside. One thing to note right away is that the OP is talking about growing startups. That means that there are usually plenty of things wrong in the startup that everyone agrees are wrong but haven't made a decision on how to fix yet. So, absolutely, the new executive should be facilitating solutions well before 90 days.

As I recall, in my first 90 days:

1. On day one several people hinted to me about work from an under performing contractor. On day 2, I met with this contractor and looked at his code. On day 3 I put him on a performance improvement plan. On day 8 I decided that he was the wrong fit for the role and ended his contract. Great guy, but he was just hired for one thing and then asked to do something else. But there wasn't anyone else who was really qualified to track down whether the problem was direction or fit.

2. There was a general consensus that we weren't shipping code fast enough. On week 3 we implemented Scrum (it was 2005). The engineers kind of hated it. But Scrum achieved what was needed. The rest of the company had enough visibility into development speed to realize that the problem with the company was bad product/market fit, not bad developers. We pivoted a bunch of times. Twitter was one of those pivots.

3. We were running our own servers in a cage at 360 Main. Those servers had been setup originally by one of the founders. There was definitely a desktop computer in there serving production code. The servers were administered by various engineers on the team (administered poorly because it's not what they wanted to be doing). So I started recruiting for a sysadmin. I definitely had hired him within the first 60 days.

There were plenty of things in there that I tried to fix as well and failed at. I can't imagine an exec coming into a startup and not trying to fix things. 90 days is an eternity. Normally there's so much wrong that the exec actually has a lot of latitude from day 1.


I respectfully disagree. Any significant org is going to have have some process that sounded good at the time, but is now ridiculous.

If you're not finding and correcting those things in 90 days as an executive, you're warming a chair.


> Any significant org is going to have have some process that sounded good at the time, but is now ridiculous.

That most people will be inexplicably attached to emotionally.

Try this experiment if you're in a Unix shop. Get people to sign up to maintain the unpackaged programs in /usr/local, and then delete the ones that nobody signs up for. Bring popcorn and an asbestos suit. Make sure you take a backup before you do it.

Congratulations. You now understand about removing stupid processes from an organization.


"Any significant org is going to have have some process that sounded good at the time, but is now ridiculous."

And yet, it's still there. Understanding why that's the case is a pretty important part of ensuring that it actually changes. In other words, correctly identifying problems is the easy half of the problem. Dealing with the problems behind the problems is where things get tricky.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, etc.


It's often still there, because there are politics, and people cover their ass/don't want to take the risk of breaking things.


Re-evaluating process isn't necessarily a priority. One place I worked at had a paper handling process involving a specific method of stapling and folding a form.

Why? Nobody knew, but it was something that was audited by the QC people. The reason turned out to be a special accommodation for a one-armed man (literally) who was a clerk at some point in the past.


sure but there is a different between finding them, knowing how to changed them and executing that change. You need to know way more than what process is not working before knowing how to change it and you will need people on board to achieve a working lasting change. If you go in shooting from the hips you are very unlikely to achieve what you want, even if the problem is clear to everyone. If it were that straightforward they would do it without needing someone new


You're right. My heuristic is not without exceptions.


This article is foolishly binary. People are either world-class or are poor performers.

Your people are at least nominally competent. They got you to this point, after all.

So, all of his points about people already inside the organization are much more easily summarized as "If someone inside your organization is performing poorly, you don't have the time to do anything but fire them." I probably agree with this not because I think that your startup magically needs to move so fast, but because most managers are far too unwilling to fire people that desperately need to be fired.

As for an external executive hire, the whole point of pulling them in is to add a needed skillset to the mix. If they don't actually have the skill you needed, why did you hire them in the first place.

As for long term, this article falls into the trap of assuming that management is somehow an inherent talent. It is not--it is a learned behavior. This is a huge problem in business since people who believe that managerial skill is inherent never strive to measure or improve their skill.


I think you're trying to apply rules of thumbs for executives to everyone, and that doesn't work.

By the time you come in at executive level, as you say yourself, you'd better have the skillset needed, and better be functioning at an awfully high level with it.

It really doesn't take a lot to be world class once you're past those bars--most people aren't good enough in their areas to achieve executive status (I'm ignoring cronyism and a bunch of other less valid reasons to get the job) so once you're at that point, assuming you're legit, you're already in a small class of people.

Further, the executive sets the example for everyone else. So yes, if they're performing demonstrably poorly, fire them for heaven's sake. Otherwise the example they're setting will either influence everyone, or they'll be written off and now whoever hired them is going to inherit that distrust of competence.

Regarding management being an inherent talent, it's absolutely not. But a new executive hire is not the way to develop that talent--that job is for people who've already developed it. Mentor first, then promote, if you're shepherding someone from within.

And now, not ignoring cronyism and other poor reasons to hire someone, I think that whole "why did you hire them in the first place" is exactly what he's getting at. Don't hire (or promote) someone because you like them, assuming you can make them something they aren't today.

That's pretty much always true, strictly from a business perspective, but it's crucial as you go up the ladder. A bad exec will kill a company way faster than a bad employee, line manager, or even director.


Did you read the same article I did? The point was not that people are binary, but that success in executive positions is more binary than it is in other positions, because of the weight of early impressions on respect, the weight of respect on job performance, and the high impact of executives on the organization. You can hire an incompetent fry cook, engineer, or salesperson and train them to do their job (within reason).


There are TWO classes of executives. The first class are the people who are already at your company. The second class are the people who are brought in from outside.

While the advice in this article might hold for the parachuters from outside, it most definitely does NOT hold for those already at your company. Following this advice is a good way to paralyze a functioning company.


It's just like being in the top rung of kernel developers. You're either world class or the heuristic for selecting top-rung kernel devs broke down, in which case you don't have what it takes and deserve to have Linus yell at you and block your patches from acceptance into mainline.


This article is foolishly binary. People are either world-class or are poor performers.

The problem is that that's how business executives think. Of course, they all think of themselves as world-class, visionary geniuses, and they think of their enemies as poor performers. There's a certain black-or-white mentality in that set of people that you don't see among people like us.

This is also why CEO pay keeps skyrocketing despite depressingly low (and worsening) quality of people who get into the CEO job. Due to this fallacious belief that all CEOs are world-class individuals, they just have to get 30% raises every year, plus stock options and unlimited personal use of the corporate jet.

In other words, I agree fully. See, I'm a programmer and I'm a fucking good programmer and I wouldn't describe myself as world-class. Even if you bump for the creativity and writing skill and rabble-rousing ability... nope, I still wouldn't call myself "world-class", just "very fucking good at what I do". But I'm not an executive narcissist who believes that the world owes me a better pot to piss in, and even if I were, I'm not sure that I have the negotiation skill that I'd need to get it.


Unfortunately, especially in a startup, there aren't many friendly ways of saying "Hey, CEO, I think you're sucking at leading and sales. What gives?"

Especially if you're an early employee and not in the elevated founder class.


That's a terrible thing to say to your leader. Indeed, if you really believe it, you should leave, roughly for the same reasons in the OP's article! That is, you don't have the time or the knowledge to mentor a CEO.

Far more actionable is when an executive seems to be operating under an incorrect assumption about the world (people, customers, technology, etc) and you offer what you believe is a solid refutation of their incorrect belief, ideally without ego or rancor. Employees that can do this consistently are extremely valuable to an organization.


Yea, It can get you fired. I've seen it happen. This article is too idealistic, and doesn't take into account businesses have business politics or peoples ego's.


You realize that this article is from a pretty noted VC, right? He's pretty familiar with reality.


is vc behavior homogenous? probably not. I think both pieces of advice are valid. know who you are dealing with, and if you don't know make the error on the safe side.


Sure there is. You go talk to the CEO and say "I think you're sucking at leading and sales. And I think that because of reasons X, Y & Z."

They might not listen to you but you can certainly tell them.


Better is "Why aren't we doing X, Y, and Z to improve sales?" That phrases it in a positive tone, with concrete solutions, and gives the CEO an opportunity to tactfully tell you why your model of the world may be wrong.

Beware that very often the response is "Well, I never considered that, but it sounds like a good idea. Why don't you lead a project to do X, Y, and Z and we'll see how it turns out? Oh, and be sure to get your regular work done too."


Better still...

Remember that idea you suggested last week in the pub of doing X Y and Z. Well, we started doing it on the side and it is increasing sales. Should we start doing it officially?


Or better "have we possibly considered" vs "why aren't we doing" :)


>>> Oh, and be sure to get your regular work done too.

In a fixed day, is it possible to do regular work and also extra projects?

I think, if offered solution appears reasonable to management,then some of daily responsibilities need to be shifted to remaining workforce temporarily till that pilot work gets completed.


I agree on both points. Though I would point out that #2 can, in some situations, be a big opportunity.


I disagree. Ive seen too often the person who is willing to say X,Y,Z is wrong, but cant offer a solution to solve X,Y,Z. Its the solution that matters. Bringing your CEO or any higher-up a problem without a solution is just adding to the noise that busy person already has to deal with. The whole purpose of an employee is to take an existing or new problem off of the CEOs plate.


This is fine in theory, but most solutions require time, resources, people, money... all things that employees lower down the hierarchy are unlikely to have.

If you're saying 'Bring a suggested solution but don't try to implement it without buy-in', that's a slightly different process.

The issue of who notices/fixes/prioritises/analyses tactical and strategic problems, and who assigns resources for the fixes, can make or break companies.

It's not a simple problem. I suspect a lot of popular solutions are probably sub-optimal.


True, if we get down to the nitty gritty, its not as simple as I portrayed. My intent was to say, bring an idea for a solution, don't just bring a problem. If I had two employees who came to me with the same problem, and one came prepared with a recommended solution and the other one didn't, it would be clear to me who the more valuable employee is.


If my CEO is going to demand internal pre-prepared solutions to everything, then I'd demand that they be competent enough to not need my input anymore.

I mean, "hire someone who knows how to fix this" is obvious enough that it needn't be stated, nor defended behind this "bring an idea for a solution, don't just bring a problem" talk.

Which frankly sounds like something a motivational poster writer should be saying, not someone concerned with running a business. Platitudes are rarely the solution to a meaningful problem, in my experience.


No one said demand.


No one said "take everything literally" either.


You're 100% right and I definitely should have said that. Presenting a good solution to the problem is critical.


If you visit a doctor with a problem, will you go along with possible solutions or you will point out problem and expect solution from doctor?

If you are QA engineer, you will point out issues with the tool but making reasonable and appropriate solution is developer's job. Is n't it?

You can point out the problems with your car but you cannot fix them and may be mechanic/engineer can offer solutions.

So I disagree that people should not point out issues if they do not know solutions.

CEO's need not have to solve all on their own and they can route them to appropriate experts for solutions. If that is not possible to solve immediately, offer a time line. If CEO still think, that is not problem/issue at all, let him offer convincing reason. So we have multiple options here rather than suppressing discussion.

Many managers use this type of logic to suppress debate,dissent,discussion ...etc and gradually people shut their mouths even if problem is right in front of their eyes. I think this is avoidable.


Good luck with that. Easy to say, but, in practice, that will lead to a negative result most of the time.


My company have this kind of activity each year. Teams of people from different functions identify problems, present them and their proposed solutions, what's thought needed to get it done. Present to everyone present including the GM. It can get pretty direct, but question asking and feedback are not allowed.

A month later, the chance to apply for any role (or create a new role) is offered to everyone in the organisation, again done so presenting to VPs and the GM.

I'd not encountered this in a large company; this company is around 150 people.


If your command of the language is limited to "unfortunately (you're) sucking at", then you ought to keep these thoughts to yourself.


I say it with my feet.


I think it's also missing the obvious, "they don't know what they are doing when they are playing in other orgs". It's sort of implied that helping someone is something the CEO doesn't have time for, but it's a little unclear that they might not need the help, and their job is to just coordinate, make sure to hire the right execs, and remove friction (+ raise funds).

Some of the best advice I ever got (not for exec things) was "just be sure everybody thinks you're helping, no matter what they do".


Problem is that the skillset to be CEO, and to be employee are different. The employee probably knows more about that area than a CEO, that's why you hired him.

Which why its so difficult to get on the path to be a ceo. The only way to really learn to be a CEO, is to be a CEO. And to get that chance you have to take risks, like founding.


Totally agree.

When I founded my software company 9 years ago I was 23 and to say I was wet behind the ears is an understatement. I didn't have the faintest idea about leaders versus managers, strategy, operations, procedure, policy, management of staff, performance management...the list goes on. I thought that these were all just bullshit words that people used to cover up the fact that they were sit at their jobs.

Nearly 10 years of trial and error and I'm now capable of operating as a CEO at board level. My management team are crazy good at what they do, so I'd like to think they wouldn't have stuck around if I wasn't any good!

What I'm bad at is ops and managing people but that's fine. I've learned the hard way that this isn't my forte and hired somebody better than me at that to do that job. Hiring better people than you is an old adage but so true.

There is a downside to being a founder and CEO. It makes you more or less unemployable in a typical employer/employee relationship.


Andreessen Horowitz has stated they like to develop founders into CEOs, rather than replace them with a professional CEO. If a founder CEO needs development, is no leniency for another exec to develop? What about co-founder non-CEO execs? Does this apply to them as well?


CEOs brought in from the outside are free agents. Founder CEOs (especially first-time founder CEOs) are draft picks. You don't bring in a free agent in order to develop them, unless they're a reclamation project, you were able to get them cheap, and you have a hole in your team that you really can't fill a better way. Rather, you bring in the free agent to elevate your team immediately and give you a shot at a championship trophy.


There are fast track executive development programs in Oil and Gas. But, the point is to develop a person before they become an executive. That said the mental shift from building to executing a company is difficult.


What about the mantra: "surround yourself by people smarter than you". Where is the source of incompetence, is it actually lack of intellectual brainpower or is it contextual?


All of these things are true if your expectation of the future has zero value.

On the other hand, if you think that there is any future then non of these things is true.


His point is that while you're waiting for the future, all of the people who report up to that executive have lost confidence in him. That confidence is impossible to regain. In the process, you will lose your best individual contributors and your best first-level managers.

Think of it from the perspective of a talented, savvy engineer at the company. If your CEO hires a bozo to manage engineering, do you stick around? Why should you? You are very good at what you do; you have plenty of options elsewhere, friends at other companies that are continually asking "Why don't you come work for Floogle?", and recruiters from Flare that are battering down your LinkedIn account. You're already aware that your VP makes a lot more money than you do; if it's clear that you are way more competent than he is, why should you stay?

Ben's guiding philosophy of management is "Always view all of your decisions from the perspective of everyone in the company." Trying to develop an executive for future potential may be what the CEO wants, it certainly is what the executive wants - but it's not fair to the individual contributors who work under that executive.


Why is it that binary, though? Surely somewhere between "incompetent" and "world-class" there's space for execs who are "good enough to earn their reports' respect but with room to grow in a few areas"?


It's not binary, from an objective perspective. The thing is, if you even think that his advice might apply to your situation, the exec in question has lost your respect. That means that they lost their reports' respect several months ago (the CEO is always the last to know), and you have a major problem on your hands.


I don't know about that. It'd be really easy for a credulous person to read that article and think "oh, some of my execs aren't world class yet. Guess I'd better replace them."

Yeah, once you've lost the respect of your reports (or failed to ever gain it) you can't do your job as a manager or executive, period. But that doesn't mean that great execs are born rather than made or that nobody should put any effort into developing a great manager into a new exec or a new exec into a great one, which the article seems to fallaciously suggest.


So much sympathy here for the poor mid level executive. I don't think it's unreasonable to have unyielding expectations of the people you're presumably compensating an order of magnitude above the rank and file. They'd best be world class at something, otherwise how the hell have they made it to the C-suite?


He thinks the right equity stake for a great engineer is 0.2%. Huh.


That number is anywhere from laughable to totally reasonable to overly generous, depending on several things including size of the company.

If you're giving employee #1 0.2%, maybe you should be hiring a contractor or something.

If you're Google, you're not going to give an engineer 0.2% even if he's The Best One.


"In the end, a CEO has got to know her limitations."

I love how he switches between gendered pronouns in this article, and ends with a female one.


Really, a complaint about somebody going through the effort of avoiding these complaints?


I don't think they were being tongue-in-cheek.


I originally wasn't going to say anything... but I will say that it did strike me as an odd thing to do.


It isn't very important I suppose, but the switching did interrupt my train of thought.

It is a shame we can't use "it" or another pronoun to avoid the issue entirely. They/their sometimes works but feels wrong when talking about a person in singular.


This is the "I don't know how to do it, so no one does" fallacy. Total bullshit.

See, I'm pretty confident that, in a focused year of mentoring, I could turn anyone with strong general intelligence (say, IQ over 125) into a good programmer. If I can train someone into a hard job, then it can't be that difficult to train someone into a much easier job.

You should be extremely clear up front that you expect your executives to be world-class in their functions. If they are not, they will not keep their jobs.

Oh, this is just self-congratulatory claptrap. I don't consider myself a "world-class" programmer. I'm good, but it's not like I'm not one of the 20 best out there. And I'm far more "world-class" than 99 percent of tech executives.




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